Sunday, December 28, 2014

Fortnightly Book, December 28

The First Folio edition of William Shakespeare's plays, published in 1623, divided its thirty-six plays into three groups: comedies, histories, and tragedies. Ten plays are found in the category of 'histories', of which eight are concerned with the Wars of the Roses. While I'll be reading all ten, it is the latter that is the primary draw; I've been wanting to read the plays of the Wars of the Roses cycle all together for some months now.

The plays are:

(1) King John: John ruled from 1199 to 1216; he was the son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the father of Henry III. He came to the throne after the death of his brother, Richard I Coeur de Lion. He faced some rather significant problems in his reign, which he did not handle entirely successfully, and the play is mostly about the internal dissensions he faced, and the need of the English people to be united. The structure of the story is based almost entirely on a previous anonymous play, The Troublesome Raigne of King John, which was published in 1591 and has occasionally also been attributed to Shakespeare.

***Wars of the Roses***

(2) King Richard the Second: Richard II ruled from 1377 to 1399; he was the younger son of Edward, the Black Prince, and he succeeded his grandfather, Edward III, at the age of ten. Since the play depicts the deposition of Richard II, which led to Henry IV taking the throne, it was somewhat controversial in its day; scholars since have tended to see the play as suggesting that the deposition started the chain of events leading to the Wars of the Roses, which is perhaps a little free with the history but a rather less subversive interpretation.

(3) The First Part of King Henry IV: Henry IV, cousin to Richard II, ruled from 1399 to 1413. The play was famous from the beginning for its comedy, most notably in the person of Falstaff, Prince Hal's drinking companion. The story depicts the period in which Henry Percy (Hotspur) rebels against Henry IV, although we also get something of Prince Hal's own rebelliousness.

(4) The Second Part of King Henry IV: The tale follows Prince Hal and his relation to Falstaff as Prince Hal has to come to reject his dissolute ways and become a man worthy of being king.

(5) King Henry V: Prince Hal ascends the throne and rules as King Henry V from 1413 to 1422. The play, which focuses on the Battle of Agincourt (1415) serves as a sort of pinnacle to the War of the Roses cycle, portraying a definite political success.

(6) The First Part of King Henry VI: With Henry VI, who ruled England from 1422 to 1461 and from 1470 to 1471, we begin to get the Wars of the Roses themselves, as the House of Lancaster begins to struggle against the rising House of York. That England's fortunes, so apparently bright under Henry V, are beginning to turn is seen in the fact that Joan of Arc (la Pucelle) is a character in this play: the French under the Valois dynasty are about to make sudden and massive gains against the English and their Burgundian allies, although Joan will eventually be captured. An uneasy and unstable peace settles by the end, on the verge of Henry IV's marriage to Margaret of Anjou.

(7) The Second Part of King Henry VI: Henry VI marries Margaret of Anjou and the two, who are something of an ill-suited match, become caught up in the struggle between Gloucester and Suffolk; the Wars of the Roses begin and the play ends with Henry VI in flight from the House of York. It is usually considered the strongest of the Henry VI plays.

(8) The Third Part of King Henry VI: Beginning where 2 Henry VI leaves off, this play covers the destruction of the kingdom and the corruption of its houses through the Wars of the Roses. It ends with Henry VI having been cast off his throne a second time and depicts Richard, brother of King Edward IV of the House of York, as his assassin.

(9) King Richard III: The death of King Edward IV brings Richard to the throne as Richard III, who ruled England from 1483 to 1485. The basic story that Shakespeare is working with goes back to Sir Thomas More, since both of the major sources used by Shakespeare for his historical background, Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548) and Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577) draw on More's History of King Richard III -- good dramatic ground to build on, since More presents Richard III as extraordinarily manipulative, able to push and pull people as he will even when they see clearly that he is doing it, yet simultaneously blind to the clear signs that he is pushing events toward his own destruction. The play ends with Richard's defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field. It is Shakespeare's second longest play (after Hamlet) and is usually performed in an abridged version because it presupposes familiarity with the Henry VI plays.


(10) King Henry VIII: Henry VIII ruled from 1509 to 1547. It ends with the christening of Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth. It is very free with the order of events and avoids any direct criticism of Henry, although it is usually thought to have been first written and performed after Elizabeth's death. It is often thought to be a collaborative work with John Fletcher.

As I mentioned before, my primary interest is to read the Wars of the Roses cycle, from Richard to Richard by way of the Henries, but I'll read the other two as well. The edition I am using is the Heritage Press (New York) edition of 1958, introduced by Peter Alexander with woodcut illustrations by John Farleigh; it is the second volume of the three volume set of Shakespeare's plays. While I've read all the plays before at some point or another, this volume has seen less reading than the other two, except for Henry V, which is my favorite Shakespearean play. You see a picture of it online, with the title page and some of the woodcuts, although my copy is in much better shape. Alas, I seem to be missing the Sandglass for it, so I don't have further details about binding or type, or at least, any details that could be regarded as remotely accurate. But the whole work is 986 pages, not counting the glossary in back, so that's quite a bit of historical drama to get through in two weeks.


  1. MrsDarwin8:53 PM

    I know I've written to someone about The Hollow Crown recently, and I can't remember who I was talking to, so if I'm repeating myself here, mea culpa, but: We just watched the BBC's The Hollow Crown, which consists of Richard II - Henry V, using the same actors (mostly) for continuity. It's a successful experiment, for the most part. Richard II is just fabulous (personally, as well as production-wise). In one of the commentaries, someone says that this production defines a new generation of Shakespearean acting, and you can see that in the brilliant performance of Ben Whishaw as Richard, really some of the best acting I've seen. Here is Shakespeare being played not just for sonorousness (Olivier) or musicality (Branagh, who almost sings his lines -- not a criticism!), but for sense, with every line designed for intelligibility, to mean something. It's pitch perfect. It's not a full-text version by any means (and I know because I was following along in my crabbed one-volume Shakespeare), and some directoral liberties are taken -- the death of Richard comes to mind -- but it made the play come alive for me in a way that just reading it wasn't doing, and it made a subsequent reading far more rewarding. We found it on Netflix, but if you haven't got Netflix, you can find it on Amazon here:

    Henrys IV featured Jeremy Irons as Henry IV, Tom Hiddleston as Hal (Hiddleston is the Brit Actor Flavor of the Month, but he's doing some fine stagey acting here -- watch how he holds himself while Jeremy Irons upbraids him; it's a perfect example of neutral acting posture, ready for any action), and Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff. Beale is outstanding. He KNOWS what he is saying. I'd not seen Jeremy Irons act Shakespeare before, but he's gripping. And you get a sense of movement in history, having seen the backstory in Richard II. (I spent a lot of time on Wikipedia with English history pages afterward, trying to clear up where Shakespeare was taking liberties, but it was time well spent.)

    Henry V should be a play that it's impossible to get wrong, but this director gets it wrong. Should HV be boring? Should it put the viewer to sleep? No, it should not, but I could barely keep my eyes open. The cuts to the script didn't make a lot of sense -- in fact, they made the play make LESS sense -- and the director didn't seem to have any sense of the movement of a battle. The St. Crispin speech was played as a closet drama, rather than a get-yer-blood pumping battle cry, and not even the fine actors could make that fly. And Henry and Kate -- I weep for the missed opportunity. A scene that should have been impossible to butcher, butchered. Tom Hiddleston didn't even have any character work going on. He didn't know what he was doing, because the director didn't give him anything to do. They were distant when they should have been close, and close when they should have been creating tension through distance, and it was all a mess... The production had a few good moments, but I went back and watched Branagh's HV afterward, and it was the far superior movie.

    Henrys VI, 1 and 2, and Richard III (starring Benedict Cumberbatch, natch) are slated for 2016, a bit late for your reading, but you'll be ready for 'em when they come out.

  2. branemrys12:23 AM

    I'm pretty sure you mentioned it before; I don't know if it started me thinking about reading the Wars of the Roses cycle, but it certainly contributed to keep me thinking about it.


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